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Google Voice Search Talks Me Through a 'House of Cards' Weekend

Will Google voice search still work if your face is smushed into a pillow?


Just a couple years ago, the mobile voice-recognition technology behind the most powerful search engine in the world had an error rate of around 25 percent. This meant that if you said “Okay, Google” to your Android smartphone and dictated some sort of question or command, Google’s software would misinterpret your voice queries about once every fourth time.

But Google told me recently that it has improved its voice-recognition accuracy in search to 92 percent — or, an 8 percent error rate. Google calculated this by listening to a large volume of anonymized voice searches and finding that 92 out of every hundred were, in fact, heard correctly.

I wanted to put this to the test, so I planned to spend an entire weekend using only Google voice search.

However, this weekend happened to be unlike most other weekends: On Friday, Netflix released the entire third season of “House of Cards,” and most of my Friday-Sunday “plans” therefore consisted of TV time with occasional breaks.

(Needless to say, I’m a fan of the show, and if I were not a tech writer, I’d probably be subjecting you to some annoying thinky piece on the paradoxical nature of political power, or my interpretation of FrankandClaire as a single sociopathic unit.)

So most of my Google voice search testing revolved around “House of Cards,” along with a few other random queries that I made throughout the weekend. I performed at least a dozen voice searches using an Android-based Nexus 6 smartphone, and later used a smartwatch, as well.

These queries don’t contain any spoilers, but if I’m asking about a character I completely forgot existed in a previous season, it might tip you off to something.

  1. Okay, Google: When does “House of Cards” Season 3 become available?

My dictation was heard accurately by Google’s mobile search software, and Google responded with its polite robot-lady voice: “According to Wikipedia … On Dec. 1, 2014, Netflix announced that the third season would be available on Feb. 27, 2015.”

  1. Okay, Google: What happened to Doug Stamper last season on “House of Cards?”

Again, my question was heard accurately. Rather than responding with voice, though, Google showed me Web results, the top of which was a Washington Post article with reminders of what happened last season.

  1. Okay, Google: What are Calafia’s hours?

This was unrelated to “House of Cards” — it was about a food break. However, this was one of the dictations Google heard wrong. It interpreted my query as “Calafia Zours,” and showed me a YouTube video titled “Calafia, Soy Yours.” I then asked, “What are the hours at Calafia?” and Google’s software heard the rephrasing correctly.

  1. Okay, Google: Is there actually a bourbon called House of Darby? and Okay, Google: House of Darby bourbon.

My queries were heard correctly. However, I couldn’t find anything in the search results that told me whether House of Darby bourbon — which makes repeat appearances on “House of Cards” — was a real product.

  1. Okay, Google: Who owns Nokia?

This voice search was the result of a minor show-pausing debate at home over who actually owns Nokia now, given that at least two key characters in season three of “House of Cards” were using Windows Phone-based Nokia handsets (!). Google’s voice-recognition tech heard my question correctly, and dictated an answer to me. (Also: I was right.)

  1. Okay, Google: Hours at local post office?

Again, not related to “House of Cards,” but I did have to venture out into the world a couple times. Google heard my dictation correctly, and listed hours for three nearby post offices.

  1. Okay, Google: Is Pussy Riot in “House of Cards” Season 3?

I didn’t realize that two notable characters in episode three were members of the Russian activist punk band until near the end of the episode, and I was especially curious about this voice search, since a misinterpretation could lead to alllll sorts of results. But Google voice search heard my question correctly, and led me to a few articles that confirmed the band’s appearance.

  1. Okay, Google: What happened to Freddy on the last season of “House of Cards?”

Will Google voice search still work if your face is smushed into a pillow? Apparently so. I covered my face with a throw pillow, and shouted this question into the phone — about a foot away on the coffee table — and Google voice search still picked up on it. The first result was a Wikia page for the character Freddy Hayes, Frank’s favorite BBQ ribs maker.

  1. Okay, Google: What causes the Northern Lights?

“According to EarthSky, when charged particles from the sun strikes atoms in Earth’s atmosphere, they cause electrons in the atoms to move to a higher-energy state. When the electrons drop back to a lower energy state, they release a photon: light.” In other words, fellow nerds, Google voice heard my question correctly. This search was inspired by one of the few “moments” between Frank and Claire this season, when they see the Northern Lights during a flight on Air Force One.

  1. Okay, Google: Who plays Heather Dunbar on “House of Cards?”

For this one, I purposely yelled across the room (from about 10 feet away) to where the smartphone lay on my desk. Google still picked up on the query; one of the first (correct) results was an page for the actress Elizabeth Marvel.

  1. Okay, Google: How many presidents have gone gray while they’re in office?

It looked as though Google’s voice-recognition software didn’t hear this one correctly as first — it said something like “gone gray water office” — but it quickly got itself together, and the first result was a Huffington Post slideshow indicating that Frank Underwood is hardly the first president, real or fictional, to go gray. Oh, yay. A slideshow.

  1. Okay, Google: When will “House of Cards” Season 4 come out?

Unfortunately, not even Google knows the answer to this one. But Google voice search heard my question correctly.

As you can see, the voice recognition was impressively accurate, getting only one in 12 voice searches totally wrong — an error rate of about 8 percent , which is what Google is now promising. Even after I finished my binge-watching testing, I continued to use Google voice search, and got good results. It accurately heard that I was looking for “Moss Beach” when I was in a car with the radio on; and when I asked about “new deal,” it knew that I was looking for information on FDR’s “New Deal.”

I also attempted to get my “Okay, Google” on with a smartwatch, specifically the Moto 360, which runs on Android. Since the Moto 360 pairs with a smartphone for its access to the Web, all of the searches I spoke into the watch came out pretty much the same as the voice searches I performed on the Nexus 6 (including the single error). One difference was that the information displayed on the smartwatch face was usually just a snippet, and not a list of Web results, due to the limited screen real estate.

These results were key. One of the promises of smartwatches, including the forthcoming Apple Watch, is that wearers should be able to perform certain functions by speaking to their wrists, because, let’s face it: They’re not great input devices.

Speaking of Apple, a test of Google’s voice-recognition tech naturally brings up the question of how it compares to the voice-recognition tech in Apple’s Siri (although, as I’ve said before, the intelligence layer in Google’s search app operates differently from the mobile virtual assistant Siri). In one comprehensive test that involved way more questions than the test I did, Google Now fared slightly better.

So, using my iPhone, I asked Siri the same dozen questions I asked Google search. Keep in mind that I wasn’t judging the results themselves; I was looking simply for the software to recognize the words I was asking, and to understand the basic context of the questions. Apple has never said exactly how accurate Siri is or isn’t, just that the company is always improving Siri’s capabilities.

Siri didn’t do as well as Google voice search. She misheard four queries, interpreting “Calafia hours” as “Pilates hours”; “gray while they’re in office” as “gray wall in office”; and “Heather Dunbar” as “Dunbar from which team — the Cowboys or the Rams?”

Okay, Google: You win this one.

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